Thursday, February 16, 2017

How could the Soviet Union have disappeared?

Way back when I was in college in the 1960s, I was fascinated by the history of Russia, then the Soviet Union. I took every Berkeley course available that didn't require Slavic language proficiency. And then, life happened and Russia receded as an interest for me. Unconcern remained my default mode, even when the Soviet Union came undone and successive new regimes blundered forward in that vast, disturbed country. I never much took it on myself to read up on why the bogeyman of my youth came to disintegrate. I instinctively didn't give much trust to US sources and more dispassionate accounts didn't exist immediately.

But in recent years I've been trying to catch up with all the contemporary history I'd let pass me by. And so, here are some tidbits I picked up out of From Washington to Moscow: US-Soviet Relations and the Collapse of the USSR by Louis Sell. Sell is a retired Foreign Service officer who served twenty-seven years with the US Department of State, including several stints in Moscow during which he dealt directly with both the top ranks of the Soviet state and also with anti-Soviet dissidents. He seems to like and empathize with many Russians. And his book is designed to answer what seems to me still the necessary question about contemporary Russia: how could the mighty Soviet Union have simply disappeared?

Here are a few points that leaped out at me:

  • Over the years, the Soviet regime experienced outbreaks of localized popular unrest sometimes accompanied by violence, but these were generally sporadic and were always quickly suppressed by the authorities ... Nevertheless, the regime never lost its feeling of insecurity toward the mass of the population, which stemmed ultimately from the contradiction between the proclaimed liberationist goals of the system and the repressive reality used to keep it in power.

    In the late 1970s I attended a football game in Moscow with a Soviet friend ... Seeing me look with surprise at the heavy security presence for a peaceful if exuberant event, my nonconformist friend said with a laugh, "Our government gets very nervous when large numbers of Russians gather in one place."
  • Fear remained the essential glue that held the system together. ... When Gorbachev relaxed the threat of repression he inadvertently released a torrent of political, national and social criticism that eroded the very foundations of the system.

People in this country are conditioned to assume that governments "derive their just powers from the consent of the governed." (Declaration of Independence) Of course lots of governments actually derive their powers from their monopoly on the means of coercion; still the US notion has demonstrated considerable stability and efficacy which the old Soviet Union proved to lack.

Sell is sympathetic to Russian revulsion with what came after.

  • It is impossible to understand Putin's Russia without also understanding the effect of the end of the Cold War on the country, its people, and their rulers. In considering this phenomenon, it is worth contemplating what might have happened if events had broken the other way and if the US had experienced roughly analogous consequences to Cold War defeat. It is hardly likely that the American people would have welcomed an outcome that saw their political system discredited and replaced by models from abroad, the country itself broken up into several weak and mutually antagonistic independent states, their standard of living drastically diminished, and former international allies eagerly embracing the victors from the East. It is quite possible that under those circumstances the American people would have come to view their now triumphant rivals with anger and resentment and looked back to the Cold War with some nostalgia.
  • Moscow's sudden fall from superpower status, although inevitable in some ways since the USSR was, in reality, only a superpower in the military sense, was unsettling to Russians who more than most people tend to identify their own personal status and wellbeing with the power of the state.

There's a generalization in that last assertion that I don't feel competent to evaluate; let's ask ourselves, do we "identify our own personal status and wellbeing with the power of our state"? It occurs to me that the segment of the country which is attracted by the unpresidential Tangerine's nationalism might indeed feel that way, while many of us don't.

Sell is critical of how the US responded to the unexpected break up of the Soviet system and empire.

In the field of national security, the United States could never decide whether its primary objective was to help create a democratic and confident Russia as a full partner in the post-Cold-War world or to build up the former Soviet states as independent counters to a possibly resurgent Moscow. The US ended up trying to do both and accomplishing neither well.

That certainly seems evident today as Putin tries to re-establish a cut-rate empire and people in the US find ourselves unable to fathom the motives and intent of our Russophiliac Tangerine. What is happening here?
Some previous posts on books about modern Russia:
Masha Gessen on Putin
Stephen F. Cohen on hinge moments in Russian history
Peter Pomerantzsev on Putin's nightmare state


Brandon said...

I haven't heard of this newspaper until just now. Kstati is published in the San Francisco Bay Area.

janinsanfran said...

Hi Brandon: we have a significant Russian speaking population here in San Francisco. Looks as if someone wants to offer them quite conservative views in their own language. I've been part of campaigns working to make sure they also get progressive Russian literature around election time. :-)

Brandon said...

I don't speak Russian, and found out about the paper through the Wikipedia category on Russian-American culture in California. Your comment about the paper being conservative led me to Google around. The editors take pride in being "politically incorrect" and there's this article, interesting in its own right, on how undocumented immigrants are referred to in ethnic media.

However, Kstati strives to provide original material, according to this profile:

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